To break with conventions | Daily News
Robert Bresson

To break with conventions

Robert Bresson was 98 when he died in 1999. By that time, during a career spanning 50 years, he had made 13 films. His last, L’argent, was made in 1983; his first, exactly half a century before. Considered the definitive patron saint of the cinema, Bresson was nearly the most difficult. So difficult, that within 50 years he changed very little.

Bresson hailed from an inconsequential if not altogether mysterious childhood. After leaving school and college, he briefly turned to painting. That, coupled with his encounters with Catholicism, would prove to be the biggest influence on him later on. It was during the Second World War that he made his first film – Les Anges du Péché. Two years later he made Les Dames du Bois du Boulogne. In both he experimented with the conventional cinema he would, to the point of obsession, evade for the rest of his life.

He began this crusade with Diary of a Country Priest in 1951, and from then on – A Man Escaped, Pickpocket, The Trial of Joan of Arc, Au Hasard Balthazar, Mouchette, A Gentle Woman, Four Nights of a Dreamer, Lancelot of the Lake, The Devil Probably, and L’argent – his main preoccupation would remain the divorce of cinema from the theatre.

Judicious handling

How did he achieve this? Firstly, in my view, with the narrative structure, and the type of stories, that he employed. With the possible exception of Les Dames, none of his stories was based on a “chain-link” that called for plot and event over character. In Pickpocket, surely his masterpiece, the plot, though decidedly like clockwork, is superseded by an acute if not altogether observation of its antihero. The sequence of events which begins at a horserace and ends at a prison is handled so judiciously, that it is impossible at times to attribute to it any dramatic structure. For Bresson the plot was not expendable, but justifiable only in how it revealed its characters. This is why most of his films have such short lengths – Pickpocket runs for around 75 minutes, while The Trial, his shortest, runs for 65.

Secondly, there was his attitude to acting. In no other instance in the history of the medium did a director revolutionise the whole approach to acting as did Bresson. Sometimes – as with Pickpocket or L’argent – one is never sure as to whether the person playing a role onscreen is acting. In Pickpocket’s case it may well be because Martin LaSalle, who played the protagonist, was a relative unknown who had never taken part in a film before. Bresson called his actors “models” – a far less derogatory title than “instruments”, which was what another French director called his actors – owing to the stony, sphinx-like expression he got them to maintain on their faces throughout an entire production.

Notorious for his technique, he would sometimes shoot up to six or eight takes of a scene before he would be confident that his actors would perform without the least semblance of emotion registered on their faces, the kind of emotionless, un-theatrical acting only to be found in movies. Interestingly enough, in Diary of a Country Priest he retained somewhat to his chagrin a theatrical, emotion-ridden type of acting in many of his characters, everyone except the chief player: a perfect enough juxtaposition between the Bresson to come and, in the characters whose rage issue in fits of pomposity, the Bresson past.

Alien expression

His attitude to acting and to the cinema became most evident in The Trial, for the simple reason that it was his only film whose story had been shot before – by Carl Theodore Dreyer in 1928. Bresson was not spare in his criticism of Dreyer’s version of Joan of Arc’s trial: he even described its acting as “buffooneries.” For him Expressionism was a thing alien to the cinema. Most of these views on film were captured in a book that can only be described as part-memoir, part-movie-manual – Notes on the Cinematographer. The title itself caught the gist of the whole thing: films should be cinematographic, not theatrical.

The fourth, and perhaps the most important reason, was the wide esteem with which he was held. Like Hitchcock and John Ford, and pretty much like Spielberg, Bresson was widely recognized for his worth by the critical fraternity of his time. Unlike them, his films did not find much favour with audiences. His career coincided with the rise of the second biggest film movement in history after Italian neo-realism – the French New Wave, the most free-wheeling, lively thing to happen to movies since the coming of sound. Understandably enough the critics of the magazine of the New Wave, Cahiers du Cinéma – Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, and Eric Rohmer – adulators of “Pure Cinema”, regarded Bresson as a near God, a purveyor of the type of moviemaking they wanted in their country.

These reasons, combined, gave Bresson the type of fame few experimenters could aspire to. If ever an image of the artist as an iconoclast could be conjured, two filmmakers could have been used as examples, and both were from France: Alain Resnais and Robert Bresson. But while Resnais’s dazzling iconoclasm came out from an avant-garde approach to cutting and editing, Bresson’s fame was derived from his persistent, almost hermit-like attitude to life itself. The spiritual asceticism in his work is decidedly Catholic: salvation and redemption are two themes that constantly run through all of them.

Expressionist cries

And yet this is not of the sort of chamber music austerity of some of Bergman’s films, or the Expressionistic cries of pain of Dreyer’s. If Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly or Winter Light remain slightly contrived and preconceived, even manipulative, it is because of a naked austerity that leaves little to make up for the thinness of plot that is the hallmark of these films. In Winter Light, surely Bergman’s most austere, the 90 minute, real-time journey of a small-town pastor on a Sunday seems too preoccupied with words, dialogues, monologues – words, however well scripted they may be, are not enough. This is something Bresson knew, which is why words never seem to transcend plot in his work.

Also central to Bresson’s distinction from these two filmmakers was his refusal to dabble in worldly themes. The Trial is probably the closest he ever got to such a theme. Even in Bergman’s best, we see an almost constricting use of words or images to highlight mundane subjects – the interplay between art and real life in Through a Glass Darkly, the fear of nuclear war in Winter Light, or the foreshadowing of war and chaos in The Silence. Dreyer too showed this quality from time to time – in Ordet, Gertrud, and Day of Wrath. Bresson was distrustful of both introspective speech and excessive action. His refusal to dabble in mundane themes stemmed from this distrust, and it gave him endless opportunities to experiment with things he considered to be more important – like acting.

The aims he set for his career and the sheer determination that went with them narrowed his preoccupation with the mechanics of film down to one goal: the separation of cinema from theatre. The only other mainstream director who devoted his career to the pursuit of a single aim was Alfred Hitchcock. Bresson’s pursuit would appear, to discerning film lovers, more noble than Hitchcock’s at times callous compromises with the box-office.

With Robert Bresson we lost cinema’s truest patron saint, a filmmaker who was not afraid of flouting convention if that served the purposes of his art. Few filmmakers ever sought to divorce the cinema from other art forms, notably the stage. Few filmmakers sought to strike at the heart of the cinema with as much success. And few filmmakers ever had their conception of the medium so recognised, and applauded, as did his. Godard once described his contribution to cinema as akin to Mozart’s in music and Dostoyevsky’s in literature. No filmmaker can equal him, even after all these years. He was, and, even after his death, still remains, the most unique artist in the history of the film medium.